In the past few years, Clint Eastwood has been more successful coaxing terrific performances out of A-list actors than terrific movies out of mediocre scripts. It started with with 2009’s Invictus (Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman) and continued with last year’s Hereafter (Damon again). Now there’s J. Edgar, a limp, snooze-worthy biopic about FBI director J. Edgar Hoover that’s remarkable only for Leonardo DiCaprio’s turn in the title role, one in which he ages decades and drops his Gs in words such as “strength.”
Written by Milk’s Dustin Lance Black, J. Edgar persistently bounces back and forth in time, a gimmick that results in a confusing narrative about Hoover’s personal and professional history. The broad strokes are covered: how a young charmer rose in the ranks and helped found the FBI, Hoover’s close relationship with his mother (Judi Dench) and his contentious one with other G-men and law enforcers, and—-what viewers are probably most interested in seeing—-whether or not Hoover was a gay cross-dresser.
The latter, while not presented salaciously, turns out to be the most compelling part of J. Edgar (though it’s not dealt with head-on until the film’s final chapters, long after you’ve started to nod off). At the heart of the rumors is Hoover’s associate director, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), with whom he’d taken meals and vacations from the time of Tolson’s hiring in 1927 until Hoover’s death in 1972. According to the script, Tolson was aching to become Hoover’s lover and couldn’t stand when he would mention any “lady friends”; Hoover, however, once told by his mother that she’d “rather have a dead son than a daffodil of a son,” fought his homosexuality, while still remaining close to his companion.
Besides its jumbled timeline, J. Edgar’s biggest misstep is its use of distracting prosthetics to age DiCaprio, Naomi Watts (who plays Hoover’s longtime secretary), and Hammer, who suffers the worst of it. (When Tolson has a stroke and begins to collapse, your first thought is that his terrible makeup is suffocating him.) DiCaprio’s performance, particularly in the flash-forwards, is defiant and captivating. But looking at him is a chore.